The splinternet (also referred to as cyberbalkanization or Internet Balkanization) is a characterization of the Internet as splintering and dividing due to various factors, such as technology, commerce, politics, nationalism, religion, and interests. "Powerful forces are threatening to balkanise it," writes the Economist weekly, and it may soon splinter along geographic and commercial boundaries.[1] Countries such as China have erected what is termed a "Great Firewall", for political reasons, while other nations, such as the US and Australia, discuss plans to create a similar firewall to block child pornography or weapon-making instructions.[1]

Clyde Wayne Crews, a researcher at the Cato Institute, first used the term in 2001 to describe his concept of "parallel Internets that would be run as distinct, private, and autonomous universes."[2] Crews used the term in a positive sense, but more recent writers have used the term in a negative sense.


Describing the splintering of Internet technology, some writers see the problem in terms of new devices using different standards. Users no longer require web browsers to access the Internet, as new hardware tools often come with their own "unique set of standards" for displaying information.[3]

Journalist and author Doc Searls uses the term "splinternet" to describe the "growing distance between the ideals of the Internet and the realities of dysfunctional nationalisms. . . ," which contribute to the various, and sometimes incompatible standards which often make it hard for search engines to use the data. He notes that "it all works because the Web is standardized. Google works because the Web is standardized." However, as new devices incorporate their own ad networks, formats, and technology, many are able to "hide content" from search engines."[4]

Others, including information manager Stephen Lewis, describe the causes primarily in terms of the technology "infrastructure," leading to a "conundrum" whereby the Internet could eventually be carved up into numerous geopolitical entities and borders, much as the physical world is today.[5]

Commercial lock-in

The Atlantic magazine speculates that many of the new "gadgets have a 'hidden agenda' to hold you in their ecosystem." Writer Derek Thomson explains that "in the Splinternet age, ads are more tightly controlled by platform. My old BlackBerry defaulted to Bing search because (network operator) Verizon has a deal with Microsoft. But my new phone that runs Google Android software serves Google ads under apps for programs like Pandora." They rationalize the new standards as possibly a result of companies wishing to increase their revenue through targeted advertising to their own proprietary user base. They add, "This is a new age, where gadgets have a 'hidden agenda' to hold you in their ecosystem of content display and advertising. There are walls going up just as the walls to mobile Internet access are falling down."[6]

Forrester Research vice president and author Josh Bernoff also writes that “the unified Web is turning into a Splinternet,” as users of new devices risk leaving one Internet standard. He uses the term "splinternet" to refer to "a web in which content on devices other than PCs, or hidden behind passwords, makes it harder for site developers and marketers to create a unified experience."[7] He points out, for example, that web pages "don't look the same because of the screen size and don't work the same since the iPhone doesn't support Flash." He adds that now, with the explosion of other phone platforms like Google Android, "we'll have yet another incompatible set of devices."[8] However, both Android and iOS are Unix-based platforms, and both offer WebKit-based browsers as standard, as does leading handset manufacturer Nokia.[9]

Politics and nationalism

A survey conducted in 2007 by a number of large universities, including Harvard, found that Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia filter a wide range of topics, and also block a large amount of content related to those topics. South Korea filters and censors news agencies belonging to North Korea.[10]

It found that numerous countries engaged in "substantial politically motivated filtering," including Burma, China, Iran, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Tunisia, and Yemen engage in substantial social content filtering, and Burma, China, Iran, Pakistan and South Korea have the most encompassing national security filtering, targeting the websites related to border disputes, separatists, and extremists.[10]

Foreign Policy writer, Evgeny Morozov, questions whether "the Internet brings us closer together," and despite its early ideals that it would "increase understanding, foster tolerance, and ultimately promote worldwide peace," the opposite may be happening.[11] There are more attempts to keep foreign nationals off certain Web properties, for example, digital content available to U.K. citizens via the BBC's iPlayer is "increasingly unavailable to Germans." Norwegians can access 50,000 copyrighted books online for free, but one must be in Norway to do so.[11] As a result, many governments are actively blocking Internet access to its own nationals, creating more of what Morozov calls a "Splinternet":

Google, Twitter, Facebook — are U.S. companies that other governments increasingly fear as political agents. Chinese, Cuban, Iranian, and even Turkish politicians are already talking up "information sovereignty" a euphemism for replacing services provided by Western Internet companies with their own more limited but somewhat easier to control products, further splintering the World Wide Web into numerous national Internets. The age of the Splinternet beckons.[11]

Organizations such as the OpenNet Initiative were created because they recognized that "Internet censorship and surveillance are growing global phenomena." Their book on the subject was reportedly "censored by the U.N." with a poster removed by U.N. security officials because it mentioned China's "Great Firewall".[12] In March 2010, Google chose to pull its search engines and other services out of China in protest of their censorship and the hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese activists.[13]

Other countries, besides China, also censor Internet services: Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran's press situation, for example, as "Very serious", the worst ranking on their five-point scale.[14] Iran's Internet censorship policy is labeled "Pervasive" by the OpenNet Initiative's global Internet filtering map, and the worst in the ranking.[15] In March 2010, they added Turkey and Russia to their ‘under surveillance’ list regarding Internet censorship, and warned other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Belarus and Thailand, also "under surveillance" status, to avoid getting transferred into the next "Enemies of the Internet" list.[16]

Security and espionage

In May 2013, former United States CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden provided The Guardian with documents revealing the existence of far-reaching espionage systems installed by the NSA at critical junctions where Internet traffic is aggregated. As various world governments have learned the extent to which their own communications have been compromised, concerns have been raised that these governments will erect sovereign networks so as to isolate their traffic from NSA spying programs.[17]

In October 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff announced plans to create a "walled-off, national Intranet".[18][19]


Internet access has also been blocked for reasons of religion. In 2007, and again in May 2010, Pakistan blocked the video sharing website Facebook and YouTube, reportedly along with search engine Google, and Wikipedia, to contain what it described as "blasphemous" and "un-Islamic" material.[20][21]

The Church of Scientology recommended Internet censorship as a method of defending itself against what it said were a constant campaign of abuse by the group "Anonymous", along with "misinformation" and "misrepresentation" in the media. In September 2009 it asked the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Freedom of Religion and Belief to restrict access to web sites it believes incites "religious vilification."[22]


Splintering of the Internet community can occur when members of specific interest groups use the Internet to exclude or avoid views that contradict their own cherished beliefs and theories. Called Cyberbalkanization (or sometimes cyber-balkanization), it refers to the division of the Internet or the world wide web into sub-groups with specific interests (digital tribes), where the sub-group's members almost always use the Internet or the web to communicate or read material that is only of interest to the rest of the sub-group. The term may have first been used in an MIT paper by Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson that was published in late 1996.[23] The concept was also discussed in a related article in the journal Science that same year.[24] The term is a hybrid of cyber, relating to the Internet, and Balkanization, a phenomenon that takes its name from the Balkans, a part of Europe that was historically subdivided by languages, religions and cultures.

In his 2001 book Republic.com, Cass Sunstein argued that cyberbalkanization could damage democracy, because it allows different groups to avoid exposure to one another as they gather in increasingly segregated communities, making recognition of other points of view or common ground decreasingly likely. The commentator Aleks Krotoski feels that Jihadist groups often use the Internet in this way.[25]

Despite the concerns of cyberbalkanization, there is mixed evidence that it is actually growing. In contrast, a Wharton study found that internet filters can create commonality, not fragmentation. Consumers apparently use the filter to expand their interests, not limit them.[26]

See also


  1. 1 2 "A virtual counter-revolution" The Economist, Sept. 2, 2010
  2. Libertarian, or Just Bizarro?, Aparna Kumar, WIRED
  3. "Splinternet? Growing Variety of Devices Presents Content Challenge" FutureChanges.org., Jan. 27, 2010
  4. Doc Searls, “The Splinternet” Dec. 16, 2008
  5. “The Internet and Its Infrastructure” Dec. 8, 2008
  6. "The Fall of the Internet and the Rise of the 'Splinternet'". The Atlantic. March 8, 2010.
  7. "The Splinternet War: Apple vs. Google vs. Facebook" Advertising Age, April 30, 2010
  8. “The Web Is Turning Into The 'Splinternet'” Bernoff, Josh. ‘’Forbes’’, March 29, 2010
  9. "Nokia Open Source". Nokia Developer. Nokia. Retrieved 11 August 2011.
  10. 1 2 "Survey of Government Internet Filtering Practices Indicates Increasing Internet Censorship". Berkman Center, Harvard University. May 18, 2007.
  11. 1 2 3 Morozov, Evgeny. Think Again: The Internet" Foreign Policy, May/June 2010
  12. "FAQ: What Happened at the Internet Governance Forum?". OpenNet Initiative. November 15, 2008.
  13. "Don't Be Evil". The New Republic. April 21, 2010.
  14. "Reporters Without Borders - Iran".
  15. "ONI Internet Filtering Map".
  16. "Bianet: Internet Censorship: Turkey “Under Surveillance” Of RSF" Cyberlaw.org, March 15, 2010
  17. John Naughton. "Edward Snowden's not the story. The fate of the internet is". the Guardian.
  18. "The Future of the Internet: Balkanization and Borders". TIME.com.
  19. "Is the Balkanization of the Internet Inevitable?"
  20. "Pakistan’s Blocking Binge: First Facebook, Now YouTube; Others Inaccessible" Wired, May 20, 2010
  21. "Banned: Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia… Google?" Express Tribune, Pakistan, May 20, 2010
  22. "Church of Scientology recommends Internet censorship" CIO, Sept. 8, 2009
  23. Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyberbalkans?, March 1997 paper
  24. Marshall Van Alstyne. "Could the Internet Balkanize Science?".
  25. "BBC Two - The Virtual Revolution, Enemy of the State?". BBC.
  26. Hosanagar, Kartik; Fleder, Daniel; Lee, Dokyun; Buja, Andreas (December 2013). "Will the Global Village Fracture into Tribes: Recommender Systems and their Effects on Consumers". Management Science, Forthcoming.
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